Entrepreneurs Notes From the Road

If you're entrepreneur, chances are you're heads down most of the time working on your own company -- with little spare time to peek at how the world around you is behaving.

Happily, the little time we get to travel and explore is also a good way to see the world though our customer's eyes -- and experience customer service, both good and bad. And, of course to shift from being the CEO, to just one of the folks in the crowd trying to find a decent hotel, restaurant, or roadside attraction. The reality is illustrative -- and worth stepping back to consider for a sec.

So join me on a brief end-of-summer sojourn into the lush, green Lehigh Valley -- for some college visits, and a bit of roadside Americana. A pleasant surprise was that a combination of technology and apps were able to enhance the trip, making it hyper-local in really fun ways!

Here's the good news: TripAdvisor is amazing now. The comments are well written and helpful, and the unhappy folks are balanced by helpful, honest, and generous folks. One person's 'great' experience is another's poor one. So the power of the crowd is evident and incredibly useful.

That's the good news. I wish I'd check TripAdvisor before booking one of my hotels on Travelocity. But I got caught in what my friend Rafat Ali calls "Hate-Selling". He describes Hate-Selling as: "being bombarded with "buy-now-or-else" false-sense-of-urgency prompts on online booking sites." Yup, that was me -- fearing that every hotel in Pennsylvania was going to sell out, as the Travelocity web site threatened that rooms were being booked right before my eyes.

So I arrived at my hotel faced with few choices. But what some business owners forget is that us consumers have power.

When my family arrived at the Days Inn in Lewisburg PA, which was booked in advance on Travelocity, we weren't expecting anything fancy. Just a place to stop for the night before we visited Bucknell the next morning. But, on opening the door to the room, we knew there had been a mistake... it was clearly a "smokers room," which was odd, because I didn't know they even offered those any more. I trotted back to the front desk, expecting we'd move rooms without issue. But the owner was already in a dispute with the guests before us, trying to explain to a man with a disabled wife that there was no first floor room and no elevator. He seemed to have the word 'no' pretty well rehearsed. He told me that the issue was with Travelocity, and that we'd been booked in a smoking room and the reservation was non-refundable, period. He was in no mood to help, and we drove off, looking for a room for the night. Travelocity -- after a too long wait on hold of 30 min -- refunded the room. By then we were rebooked and had a pleasant night. But that one bad interaction is going to haunt me,(left a bad impression) and impacted both my feelings about the Days Inn brand and Travelocity.

Another surprise was being able to connect Google Maps locations to my now trusted TripAdvisor community. It worked like this; as we're driving in the Lehigh Valley -- I simply typed "Attractions" into Google Maps. Then, the little dots show up ahead. I hover over them, read what's down the road, and jump over to TripAdvisor to see if a little side journey is advised. Oh, don't worry -- I'm not driving... I'm navigating from the passenger seat for this part of the trip. Not only did we find some great little gems, we checked out Roadside America for glimpse into the past, but it also turns out to be a great way to find locally-owned restaurants. No more name-brand road food for us. Delicious local fare all the way. Before we were done we had visited the PA Renaissance Faire, The Stacks in Bethlehem, and had some really tasty local meals. It wasn't fancy, but it was all genuine, and fun.

The simple fact is that the nature of travel is changing as the balance of power shifts. Hotels are pushing back against the large-scale booking sites like Expedia and Travelocity, and looking to offer guests special perks if they book directly with the hotel.

As the New York Times explains: "with the online giants consolidating and potentially tightening their hold on travel bookings, major hotel chains are offering a host of benefits to lure travelers to book with them directly: digital check-in,free meals, Wi-Fi and even the ability to choose a specific room."

And interestingly, it's not about price. It turns out, deals with the the booking aggregators often make that impossible writes the Times: "many times there is a rate-parity clause, which is designed so they can't undercut the online travel agencies, and vice versa," said Naved Khan, senior vice president for internet equity research at Cantor Fitzgerald, "So this fight is not really about pricing. It's about sweetening the pot with other benefits."

The biggest surprise may be the smaller properties that have never signed-on with the larger booking sites. Often, when the big venues are sold out, it's the mom and pop's that have rooms available. So here again, TripAdvisor is the go-to destination to get customer reviews and pictures, and then, a quick phone call to the hotel can seal the deal.

Information is power, and increasingly, consumers have more and more data at their fingertips.